Happy Right Here

I’m in casual conversation with one of my guys, and it occurs to me: Hey, he’s sharp. Not just sharp, I’d even go so far as to call him impressive. More importantly, he’s a lot more competent than the rank he’s wearing on his collar. Later, I pulled up his promotion exam scores. On the last test, he scored a bit low and missed promotion by just a few points. When I look at the categories he did poorly in, it didn’t make sense. We were just discussing those exact subjects, and he knew his stuff.

So, confused, I dug a little deeper. Within two points, the last five exams were exactly the same, just below what would have gotten him promoted. I also knew he had a college degree not reflected in his record, which probably would have advanced him by now. Interesting…

And yes, the end point of the discussion is that he knew the information so well that he could make sure his score was just low enough to keep him from promoting, but not failing and getting my attention. When I brought him to sit in the office, he said, “Yeah, you got me.” He had a plan, and it was to not promote while he focused his energy on other things. For some reason, he thought advancement would interfere with his goals. I’ve seen this once or twice before.

The first time, I was young and aggressive, and one subordinate had no drive to make the next rank. She made it just high enough to become retirement eligible, and that was fine for her. I couldn’t get her to study, and she was so darned honest that she wouldn’t even humor me. She wanted nothing of all my advancement programs, books, and general militant motivation. It drove me nuts.

What I didn’t know at the time was that she was studying every night, during lunches, and every chance she could, just not what I wanted. She had goals, and she was working as hard as she possibly could towards them. They just weren’t the goals I had for her. She was happy right there because she was working towards something else.

By the time she quietly retired, she had a Master’s Degree in education and a new career waiting as a teacher. Good for her.

I didn’t know what my subordinate’s goals were, so I just kept pushing mine onto her. Had I just asked, I would have understood things better and definitely would have judged her a little less harshly.

Last year, a young man wanted to get out instead of take a position being offered to him. I thought to myself, since I was worldly in this sort of thing, maybe he had a plan and his own goals. Here’s how it went:

Me:   “So, you’re convinced that you’re ready to get out.”
Him: “Yep, I sure am.”
“Great, are you going to go to school?”
“Okay, then. The job you have here doesn’t really translate well to the civilian world, so what are you going to do for work?”
“I’m not going to work.”
“Excuse me? How are you going to eat?”
“Well, my family has some land, so I’m going to build a place and–”
“What are you going to do about money? What do your friends there do for work?”
“No one really works. We just hunt and fish and…”
“You want to be a mountain man and barter for food and goods?”
“Yeah. That’s what we all do there.”

All I could imagine was him growing some unkempt beard and going back in time. A great goal, I’m sure, but it just wasn’t reasonable. He and I had a longer talk, and I’m proud to say that he took the job and still shaves every day.

Many people are happy right where they are, doing exactly what they’re doing, because they have other goals and are working towards them on their own time. To some, what I see as a career with endless possibilities and growth is just a stepping-stone, and they’re doing what they can to manage both. If you’ve ever held down the day job while taking college at night to finish a degree, you know exactly how hard it can be to balance both. I still struggle with it today while in unform and writing when I can.

On the other hand, sometimes a person really has no goals, or they aren’t reasonable, like wanting to travel back in time and wear animal skins. There’s only one way to know, and I suggest you find out.


The sooner you know, the sooner you can support your personnel in reaching their goals instead of forcing yours on them. Knowing also lets you use the time and effort you have to invest in them effectively, which is always a win. Talking to those whose goals seem a little unreasonable, that’s good too.

– Have your people set their three goals and do you know what they are?

– Where does your immediate subordinate plan to be in five years? Is it in your seat or another profession?

– What are your people going to school for on their off hours?

– What opportunities can you create for your people to help them towards their goals?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

Day Job Final_Web

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.